The Horn of Africa is synonymous with land conflicts, but a recent lecture by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed could shift focus to the control of the Red Sea.
In July, rumors started spreading that the Ethiopian government was plotting to establish a link to the Red Sea, with hope of developing a port. Following a video published by the state-owned Fana Broadcasting Corporate (FBC) early this month, it is now common knowledge that Abiy has his eyes trained on the Red Sea to assert Ethiopia’s regional influence in the Horn of Africa.
“What I wanted to talk to you today is regarding water; regarding the Red Sea Water. We can see that only a narrow strip of land separates us from the sea. It is crucial for the present leaders of Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea and Ethiopia to engage in discussions, not just for the present, but to ensure lasting peace,” PM Abiy said in the 45-minute address to party officials, recorded Oct. 13.
The comment has spawned resentment amongst Ethiopia’s neighbors, with Eritrea saying the commentary was “excessive and perplexing to all concerned observers,” according to a statement published by Eritrea’s Information Ministry.
Last week, Alexis Mohamed, a senior adviser to Djiboutian President Ismail Omar, came out criticizing Ethiopia’s appeal for Red Sea access. “Our two countries have always maintained strong, friendly relations. But you should know that Djibouti is a sovereign country, and therefore our territorial integrity is not questionable, neither today nor tomorrow,” stressed Alexis. Somalia has also joined the fray, saying that it is not open for discussion on matters of territory.
Ethiopia became landlocked in 1993 after Eritrea gained independence, marking the end of a three-decade war between the two countries. Ethiopia is now currently served by Djibouti Port, using a network of roads and the 752km Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway, the first electrified railway in East Africa. Ethiopia has also signed an agreement with Kenya on development and eventual use of the Lamu Port – South Sudan – Ethiopia (Lapsset) transport corridor.
However, PM Abiy continues to emphasize that Ethiopia’s lack of direct access to the sea is a limitation to its international trade. Abiy referenced a 2018 United Nations study, which indicated that sea access can account for up to 25-30 percent of a country’s GDP.
From an economic and political standpoint, it is easy to see why Ethiopia is agitating for a coastline. After Nigeria, Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa with a population of over 120 million people, and it is projected to reach 150 million by 2030. In addition, Ethiopia is also one of the emerging economies in Africa thanks to its extensive agricultural and manufacturing sectors. Currently, Ethiopia’s nominal GDP is the fifth largest in Africa, competing with the continent’s most powerful coastal states.
Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s quest for coastal access would come at a great cost of another unwanted regional conflict in the Horn of Africa. According to some analysts, this could be avoided by countries removing all barriers to trade and movement of goods.
“The next step could be to give or sell landlocked countries a piece of land at the coast to build their own ports or logistics hubs. The sweetener would be to grant those zones tax-free status or mark them as diplomatic areas,” argued Charles Onyango-Obbo, a journalist and political commentator on East Africa.
Ethiopia has suggested it could offer its neighbors shares to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in exchange for Red Sea access. But it appears most countries in the region are opposed to any discussions on territory.
Interestingly, Ethiopia seems to have included the Red Sea in its ongoing plans to reconstruct its national identity. Days after Abiy’s video was published, the Ministry of Peace released a draft document asserting Ethiopia’s strategic and economic interests in the Red Sea. The document, titled “Ethiopia’s National Interest: Principles and Content,” mentions that Ethiopia should secure its rights to use the Nile River and the sea, as these water bodies are tied to the nation’s existence.